The Lyell Icefield and the Lyell peaks in particular, have had my attention for many years. I’ve been doing trips around them and had glimpses and full on views of their lofty and distinct summits many times. Some of the best views were on my remote ascent of Mount Amery, Monchy and Hooge back in 2012 with Eric Coulthard. One of the issues preventing me from visiting the Lyell Icefields early was the simple problem of access. These peaks are remote!
[A shot of the Lyells (V, I and III) from the Summit of Mount Amery in 2012]
I heard a rumor already years ago, that there was a route near the Icefall Lodge that didn’t involve going the normal Icefall Lodge, helicopter or Glacier Lake approaches. Although there is nothing wrong with either of the Icefall Lodge routes (either Tivoli Shoulder or Crampon Col), this other route was rumored to be shorter, have spectacular views and was entirely self-supported. The Glacier Lake approach route never sounded that attractive to me, with talk of route finding, bushwhacking, steep and loose scree and days spent just on the approach.
Jump ahead to 2014 and the publication of K7 Climbing's Lyells trip, complete with a description of the Icefall Brook approach - now there was enough beta to try this alternate route and Steven, Ben and I put it on our radar. 2015 had a very dry spring. This resulted in the mountains shedding their white coats fairly early and by the end of June we were looking at a July snow pack already. With a free weekend and extra days off, we started planning a Lyell Icefields peak bagging trip. We paid Larry the requisite hut fees for the Lyell Hut and Ben picked me up from my house on Thursday, June 25th at around 3pm for the long approach drive to Icefall Brook.
I've described the Bush River FSR in my trip report for Alexandra so I won't repeat it here. Here's the map I drew of the Kinbasket Lake area with its forestry service roads;
[An overview map - not accurate - gives an idea of the forestry service roads around Kinbasket Lake and some notes that are current as of September 2014. Conditions change yearly - usually not for the better...Note: the collapsed bridge to the Lyells can be driven over in a high clearance vehicle. ++]
We had fantastic road conditions to the Valenciennes River FSR. The Bush River FSR was dusty but traffic was pretty much nonexistent by the time we were on it and Ben drove it like a pro. Once we turned up the Valenciennes River FSR things started to get much more interesting. ;) The first section was pretty decent as we started climbing steeply on the narrow, exposed, decommissioned road. Soon we were driving through a rushing mountain stream that had taken out the road and washed the culverts down a steep gully. We kept driving, nervously awaiting the 13th kilometer. Why the 13th? Well, in a coincidence of the bad luck digits, the bridge at around km 13 was known to be slowly collapsing. The bridge / road was officially closed at this spot in 2014 but someone probably moved the sign and folks simply started driving over the sagging structure again - classic back country BC travel!
[The spectacular scenery along the Valenciennes River FSR]
We weren't sure what to expect. When we finally saw the bridge, it looked a little more ratty than we remembered from K7's pictures less than a year previous. Steven and I made sure there were no nails sticking out and rearranged the boards at the bottom. Ben very cautiously and nervously drove down the creaking structure and revved up the other side in his Toyota Highlander. Phew! Made it! It was only after crossing the bridge that I looked at the printout from K7's report and noticed that the bridge was now completely collapsed, compared to when they drove it. Ooops. It was obvious that the bridge was in much worse shape now than previously. It is now completely dropped to the ground (water) below and the bottom decking is rotting and ready to swallow someone's tires. On hindsight we should not have crossed this bridge in the vehicle we had and should have walked from here - which wouldn't have been easy either.
[It may not look horrible, but it's much steeper than it appears and the bridge is now completely collapsed to the ground / water underneath. This is rotting the bottom decking, as you can see - and waiting to trap someone's tires. There's also a lot of nails poking out so make sure you take a rock and fix these before spinning your tires out on one.]
After the bridge we weren't out of the woods yet. We crossed numerous washouts - some were much easier than others. Another year of no maintenance and I am of the opinion that the Valenciennes River FSR will be for very high clearance 4x4's and ATV's only. Regular SUV's and 4x4 trucks that don't have high clearance will not be able to drive past km 13 and you can already pretty much forget about 2 wheel drive trucks or any type of car or crossover for accessing this part of the Rockies. A particularly worrisome spot after km 13 was at around km 15. Here a creek was flowing across the road, but it was more like a large swampy area with strong current than a creek. The water looked deep and I was surprised Ben's Highlander didn't flood out as we drove through it. Put it this way - we generated a good sized wake going across this spot. Crossing it on foot would have been over knee deep for sure.
The stress of the 22km Valenciennes River FSR reminded us again how remote the Rostrum Peak / Bush River peaks are. I think folks living around Golden are a little more used to this sort of thing, but we are spoiled in Alberta with highways and approach trails and aren't used to the feeling of being on decommissioned roads in the middle of nowhere, with very little chance of a tow if things go sideways - which they very easily can out there. We parked on the road where it obviously couldn't be driven further (thanks to another, massive washout) and noted a white Ford pickup that Steven claimed was Trevor Sexsmith's from Golden. His truck has much more clearance than Ben's SUV and is the sort of truck you need for these road conditions. I set up my mid right on the road and we scouted a way across the raging creek on a single log, so that in the early morning we wouldn't have to stumble around in the dark too much. The air temperature was very warm and the view into Icefall Canyon was looking pretty good already from the road. I was very excited to be starting this trip after so many years of dreaming about it. I meditated as I fell asleep, on the benefits of not bagging too many of the big peaks early in my scrambling career. I'm glad the more remote adventures weren't just another 'tick list item' for me - I can still get excited about them now.
[The road ends officially here! Actually, some ATV's apparently do make it across]
[The decommissioned road continues on past the washout]
The Icefall Brook / Canyon Approach
We awoke at around 03:30 after a restless night and got busy preparing for the long day ahead. After a good cup of coffee and some breakfast we were walking towards the log crossing by 04:30 with the sky already quite light in the east. The log was slicker than the night before and I didn't want to fall in the raging creek with my camera gear so I butt-shuffled across. After the creek crossing we walked about 10 minutes further down the road where it took a sharp turn to the right (south), almost going back on itself. Here there is a rocky drainage clearly visible on the left (east) which we entered via light bushwhacking from the road. Looking at Google Earth, you could possibly go further down the road where the drainage has no bush before entering it, but this is unnecessary IMHO - the bush is not an issue here. If you're in thick bush you are off route already. :)
[Steven crosses the slick log at 04:30 in the morning. I wasn't so brave and au chaval'd it!]
[The blue circle is the end of the drivable Valenciennes FSR and where we bivied the first night. The red line is approximately where you leave the road to enter the drainage leading up to the highline Icefall Brook approach trail.]
Light bushwhacking led us into the drainage proper. There was no trail, cairns or flagging of any kind marking this drainage. Steven was eager to dive into the bush on our left but I wasn't so sure. BC bush is to be avoided at ALL COSTS until you absolutely have no other choice! I could see a choke point high up in the drainage above and wanted to at least go that high before doing any serious bushwhacking. We knew from the K7 report that there was a trail to our left, eventually. I figured it would be easier to find the trail near a narrow terrain feature.
[Light bushwhacking as we head for the open drainage visible ahead and above us. The choke point is just above the snow patch.]
Near the choke point we diverted to the bank on our left and I finally spotted our first orange flagging up ahead. Sure enough! A distinct trail cut up the bank from the drainage just under the narrows, up the steep bank, and clearly marked with a ribbon. Excellent! Bushwhack avoided so far. We followed ribbons and bits of trail (obvious) across dirt slopes to a steep avy drainage where the trail went straight up the center. The trail continued to be obvious as we grunted upwards and eventually it took another cut to the left and we started getting our first of many mind blowing views of the valley that was already many hundreds of meters below us.
[Not obvious in the photo, but the trail up the first avy path is fairly distinct]
[The first of many excellent views off the trail. We came up on the left.]
[A good omen for me - one of my favorite flowers]
After crossing another avalanche gully we finally started breaking out of treeline for a while. The trickiest section of the approach was near a line of low cliffs which blocked access to the main ledge we would follow all the way to the upper bowl under the glacier. On approach we ended up ascending smooth slabs, on depproach we traversed some tricky terrain to the first avy gully before descending to the trail. The trail is a bit indistinct here but you'll know when you're at the cliffs because you'll want to keep traversing and won't be able to without ascending them first.
[The trail isn't a highway, but it's quite obvious in most places]
[Another gorgeous flower - the Woodland Lily]
[Above the low cliffband, any time you're not 100% sure where the trail is, head up towards towering cliffs and you'll find it back.]
We kept following the bench above the low cliffs, traversing some slabby / loose gullies and going higher and higher the entire time. I even spotted a bolt on one of the slabby traverses - probably used when there's snow or ice on it. Exposure to our left, into the Icefall Brook Canyon was dramatic - we certainly didn't want to slip on some of the slabby terrain or we'd be plunging down hundreds of meters to an unpleasant demise. Along with the exposure came some of the best views I've had on an approach - the only one clearly superior being the Alexandra highline approach route. The scramble was amazingly well maintained with flagging, cairns and even some red paint where there was no other options. Eventually we arrived at a section of thick alders on an avalanche slope that were cut down 3 feet wide with a beautiful trail right through! That section would be HELL without a trail cut through it. A big thanks to whoever maintains this section!
[Looking back at the striking form of Arras Mountain with it's infamous "banana couloir" which Trever Sexsmith recently skied. Note the logging road going very high on Arras' north aspect.]
[Slabby, loose scrambling terrain]
[The alder / avalanche trail which would be absolute HELL without a wide chainsaw path hacked through it]
As we continued on the ledge, the views really opened up and became very special. Waterfalls plunged hundreds of meters down from towering, glacier covered peaks all around us - some of them almost impossibly appearing out of steep cliff walls as if by magic. A truly spectacular place that I won't soon forget and will hopefully return to some day.
[A massive waterfall spouts directly out of a blank cliff face]
[Telephoto of the same impressive waterfall]
[More water cascading from hanging glaciers on the peaks across Icefall Brook]
When our trail plunged once again into fairly thick forest, we were taken aback. We thought we were above treeline - but this is BC and the treeline is high. Thankfully the trail was still obvious and flagged - at least for a while. Eventually we came to yet another rushing stream crossing - this time with a conveniently placed tree to assist us. Once across however, the trail vanished! Crap! We had been doing so well up to this point. Stubbornly we pushed into the bush, instantly losing any semblance of route or trail. Random orange ribbons were scattered in the forest, but did not in any way contribute to a trail - even a faint one. On descent we realized our mistake. The best route from this spot would be ascending on climber's right of the creek (don't cross the log) until near treeline and almost at the towering cliffs above. Cross the creek where it's braided and traverse left on open, rocky terrain towards the upper bowl above treeline.
After a brief bushwhack we broke treeline and entered the back bowl of the ledge leading towards the glacier, clearly visible now.
[Where did this bush come from? Oh well - at least there's a trail. For now...]
[Believe it or not, we're still on a trail]
[A glimpse upwards to the towering cliffs above on the right and a "twin" falls. It may be possible to head up here already, to avoid the bushwhack ahead.]
[We should not have crossed here, but rather gone upwards on climber's right of this creek to the cliffs above before traversing higher. The trail vanished at this point.]
[The creek we crossed on the logs above]
[The trail disappears...]
[A huge tree - especially considering our elevation]
[Starting to run into snow patches]
[Finally we break tree line and are at the same height as the ice fall - the Lyell Hut is high above us but visible already on the rock outcrop at center skyline, if you have a strong telephoto lens.]
Once above the final tree line, our views only improved even more. The clouds were slowly starting to dissipate and we started mixing ice fall and glacier views with green valley floors, crashing waterfalls and snow. Wild flowers were blooming in the alpine too - adding some brilliant color to the canvas we were trekking on. We worked our way up to climber's right - always gaining height wherever possible. Some folks stay too low here and get into trouble. You should avoid the slabby terrain towards the middle of the bowl where ancient glaciers have carved their paths in the past and stay as high as feasible on the right. We eventually gained two small tarns with defined bivy corrals and sublime views down Icefall Brook / Canyon. The turnoff to the Mons Hut is somewhere before these lakes on climber's right, wherever you can scramble through the upper cliff bands.
After the two tarns we managed to find supportive snow which led to the glacier and finally we were roping up for the last trudge up to Lyell Hut. Even though the hut was clearly visible at this point, it still took us 1.5 hours to plod over to it on our 'shoes. The scenery kept getting better and better as we climbed towards the hut. Just before the hut, we noticed that we'd have to go up a pretty big snow scoop on the edge of the glacier before descending slightly back to the hut. This was always fun at the end of a long day but the hut sits well protected on a small outlying ridge of Lyell 5 so this is the price we paid for that safety. As we descended the snow towards the tiny hut and biffy we noted that it was only around lunch time! We took 8 hours on the approach - certainly not too bad for a remote 11,000er and with no technical difficulties whatsoever.
[WOW! Looking back along our approach bench towards Arras Mountain with "Twin" falls on the left. ++]
[Glaciers have scoured this terrain over the last few thousand years]
[Too many waterfalls to count as we slowly contour high on climber's right towards the distant glacier. ++]
[Water plunges hundreds of meters into Icefall Canyon]
[This is a special place that many folks fly over without experiencing - to me places like this are as special, or more, than a summit]
[Waterfalls everywhere! I think soon after this falls, the Mons Hut is accessed by contouring up on climber's right and descending a bit towards the Mons Icefield. The Lyell Hut is way out of the photo on the left.]
[One of my favorite shots from the entire trip, looking back down Icefall Brook with Mons Peak the left.]
[A tele shot looking back at Arras Mountain with the large lateral moraine sneaking into the bottom of the photo. This large moraine should be crossed fairly high up - we actually climbed it for at least 100 vertical meters before trending left again.]
[Climbing the large moraine to get above slabs on our left. This was a good move and got us onto easier snow covered terrain near two small tarns.]
[Amazing fossil imprints in the rock]
[Using snow patches to avoid slabs which can be seen on the right. ++]
[At the top of the slabs now, this is looking back at Mons Peak]
[Ben hikes beside the first tarn - just visible at lower right. Note we are high above slabs to our right and heading directly to the glacier now.]
[Looking back at the highest (and largest) tarn on the left with Mons Peak at center left and Tivoli on the right. ++]
[Three days later this ice cave was surrounded by only ice - the snow melted quickly!]
[Mons Peak and Icefield. The Mons Hut is out of sight behind the shoulder on the left but can easily be accessed using this same approach.]
[Another tele looking at our approach bench on the left and Arras Mountain. We have gained a lot of height already but have hundreds of meters more to the hut yet.]
[Onto the glacier and the real plod begins...]
[A plod with a VIEW though! Looking back. ++]
[The Lyell Hut is somewhere on that shoulder of rock]
[The hut is just visible on the left. We have to climb the snow slope directly above Ben's head first, before coming back and down to the hut. We did this slope at least 5 times in 3 days. It got old. :)]
[Descending back to the hut, looking over our approach and the Lyell Glacier. Mount Forbes is now visible on the left. ++]
We commented several times on approach that it is too bad that so many folks choose to chopper into this special place when there's so many ways of accessing it on foot. (Glacier Lake, Icefall Lodge via Tivoli Shoulder or Crampon Col and Icefall Brook) Many choose to chopper into the Mons hut and then walk from there to the Lyell Hut after summiting Forbes and / or Mons Peak. I've said it before, I don't personally care how others access their mountains, but I will say that covering half the height gain and distance to a summit in a chopper seat is NOT the same thing as doing the approach on foot with an alpine pack. I don't just mean physically different either. The whole point of climbing a mountain for me, is experiencing its essense as much as possible. Hiking and bushwhacking and scrambling up the Icefall Canyon was a cathartic and soul-enriching experience that brought me closer to the essense of the mountains I was planning to climb. I had time to think about why I was there. I had time to reflect on the different alpine zones as we climbed higher and higher through them. I got to enjoy rushing streams and waterfalls and dip my cup into them as I crossed - drinking deeply straight from the earth itself. I sat on my pack near some wild flowers, watching them blow gently in the morning breeze while streams of water flowed out of a blue glacier high above me and crashed down the cliffs below. These are just a tiny fraction of the immeasurable moments that people flying overhead miss out on as they rush towards the lofty summits above, and tick off yet another list item in the back of a book before chasing off after another one.
YMMV of course and there are many reasons people don't do approach hikes to remote peaks, but if you can, I strongly recommend you don't pass on this particular one! The Lyell hut is pretty stellar, even though it's not cheap at $42/night. Larry does a good job maintaining the hut and it's probably the best sealed unit I've ever stayed in. The heater seems finicky based on the comments in the hut register but obviously we didn't need it on our trip. ;) The one thing I didn't really like was the blanket situation. Larry provides bedding with the hut, and this sounds great because you don't have to bring heavy sleeping bags along. BUT. Being so remote, the blankets never get washed (or at least very rarely). I am not a germaphobe by any stretch of the imagination but it took me a while to convince myself to use the sheets - and only because I was getting cold. I don't want to be too negative on this, but I would recommend removing them and just getting guests to bring sleeping bags like the ACC huts do.
[The hut is neat and organized. 12 people would be tight though!]
[The view from the kitchen window ain't too shabby either!]
[The 5.3 climb to the bunks is interesting... ;)]
[I love the biffy's bright red door. There's no window - so either bring a headlamp or keep that nice red door open while you're doing your business!]
The depproach from the Lyell Hut after 3 days of intense peak bagging was a bit different than our approach. The weather was threatening with gray clouds and the occasional rain shower and we weren't hanging around to see if there would be thunder storms embedded in the gray skies either! Now that we knew the route, we didn't waste any time trying to find it on descent. Seeing a group of majestic white mountain goats was pretty cool. This area must be heaven for them.
[Descending in much different conditions!]
[The ice cave from our ascent is now completely surrounded by ice instead of snow]
[Our pace wasn't slow on exit but the views were still pretty good!]
[Much more blue ice visible now. You can see the slabby terrain below, that should be avoided as much as possible. ++]
[Spot the goats?]
[The weather is really starting to close in as we get near the traverse bench]
The only slight issue we had on descent was near the end of the ledge traverse, where the trail goes down a small cliff band. In the rain, we wanted to avoid the slick slabs and stayed high until crossing a few tricky gullies (very hard scree and very steep). Eventually we made it across and simply descended to the trail that we knew was in this gully further down. We were very surprised to make it all the way out from the Lyell Hut to the truck in around 4 hours!! Yet another reason I think using helicopters for access to this area is so unnecessary. You really can't complain about a non-bushwhacking 4 hour exit from a group of 11,000ers in BC. ;) As we descended we noted the shocking amount of melt over the past 3 days of hot, sunny weather. Much of the snow on the approach glacier was now melted and 'new' crevasses were showing up everywhere.
[The flowers are loving the rain!]
[A last look back at a very special place. ++]
The drive back was interesting thanks to the furious melt and recent rains. The swampy / fast current section was very close to flooding Ben's SUV - the water was at floor boards level! The bridge also fought back - a piece of decking broke as Ben was driving across and ripped the rear bumper half off! Yikes. We managed to do field repairs but without a high clearance truck I'm not sure I'll drive further than KM 13 on this road again. The rest of the drive back went without a hitch.
[Creeks were raging on exit but we managed to cross them without too much hassle]
[Ben's bumper after the bridge incident. Note the sign in the background?]
[Yep! This is the sign from the previous photo. :)]
[Saying goodbye to the Valenciennes River FSR]
[Our route line for the Icefall Brook / Canyon approach to the Lyell Hut]